Guest Commentary - Jack Rickard

December 1994

      I can't imagine trying to make sense of the online world without the benefit of a subscription to Jack Rickard's Boardwatch Magazine. In it you'll find some of the best reporting and commentary on the subject available anywhere, at any price. Jack has an uncanny ability to see what's coming next, as reading back issues of his magazine will bear out. Here's what he has to say about the World Wide Web in the December issue of Boardwatch. As soon as I read it, I coveted it for the Gazette and he graciously permitted us to reprint it.

Ken McCarthy, Publisher

Webulism and the Cable Fable

Jack Rickard, Editor/Publisher of Boardwatch Magazine

     OK. I've got web fever. We're in the midst of a weblosion and I have personally had a webulism. And it's time to admit in it public. My name is Jack Rickard and I'm a webuloid. It's been 90 minutes since my last webulism episode. But I can't help myself.

     Yes, Boardwatch Magazine has covered the World Wide Web in numerous past issues going back prior to the existence of most magazines today purporting to cover the Internet. And we were pretty early with the Mosaic article. But I was a closet skeptic about WWW for a number of reasons:

     1. It smacked of information. A little secret online is that nearly everyone likes to look at a bit of information now and again. But it isn't what most people perceive. Aside from a tiny percentage of online info-addicts and researchers, a few hours of information consumption and most of us are just about underwhelmed by it all. Knight Ridder, Prodigy, and a number of others have made fatal or near fatal mistakes in thinking that what the online public wanted was pretty screens with pre-canned information. There is no indication of success. What people DO do online is communicate with each other. And they acquire software. If it doesn't include one of these two elements, it generally fails.

     2. It's a bandwidth hog. The World Wide Web was designed for and by people with University links that are free and of wide-pipe design. Mosaic and the World Wide Web are pretty, but they are terribly piggish about bandwidth. The result is the most amazing perceptual threshold reversion you will experience, the translation of a compressed 28.8 kbps V.34 modem link to appear for all intents and purposes to be about 300 baud. We're back at the beginning.

     3. There was nothing under the sheets. There's really no software involved here. A document with pointers that sends you to and fro. We need databases for substantive information if information is again the real game. And we need to interact with it usefully. Web servers read files and respond to commands. And not much else.

     4. Statistically nobody can do it. The numbers of people ON the Internet widely vary depending on your interpretation of what ON the Internet means. But an IP connection with sufficient bandwidth to actually DO any of this narrows the focus considerably. News flash. There AREN'T 20 million people who could if they really wanted to. Most of the online community gets left out of the party as it stands now.

     But Netscape has served as a catalyst and the web is flashing into something very different from what it was. This appears that it will BE the way people and institutions put up bulletin boards in the future. And a few of the reasons I'm now suffering from webulosis:

     1. Mosaic and the Web are evolving. You can now spawn off into a telnet session, or an ftp session to retrieve a file by tying your ftp or telnet program into Mosaic and clicking on a telnet or ftp reference. More importantly, we are seeing COMMUNICATIONS start to play a role. The Netscape Navigator featured in this issue of Boardwatch is a profoundly engaging piece of software largely because we are starting to see other applications brought in under the same icon. USENET newsgroups in Mosaic? Why not? Why not e-mail? Why not Internet Relay Chat? That you can NOW read Newsgroups and actually click on HTTP Uniform Resource Locators embedded in messages and BE there is illustrative of how this is really something DIFFERENT. But it can contain all the elements of file acquisition and communication without strain. The formation of the W3 consortium by Tim Berners-Lee to help standardize all of this and create a stable infrastructure for doing business should be a big plus.

     2. It changes the model. The wall between one BBS (computer bulletin board service) and another dissolves at the whisper of a datagram through a cable. Click on a word and you have accessed another BBS across the planet. Chat, public discussions, it all becomes globally a common ground. It even changes how we count things. Calls aren't calls. Nobody is ON anything actually. They just hit sites for files and move on to others. Everyone a client and server or client or server or both or all four.

     3. Servers are evolving. Similarly, we are seeing signs of intense development on the server end. Significant databases, forms processing, order processing, financial transactions, encryption, ultimately any software could operate under the auspices of a web server. That's different from squirting documents. And it's unlimited.

     4. Institutional Acceptance. The limp ANSI graphics of existing bulletin board technology just weren't at all appealing to TIME Magazine, other major publishers, and large institutions. Additionally, the vagaries of hundreds of telephone lines and hundreds of modems were also not attractive to those wishing to operate large services. A single T1 they can conceptually handle. The graphic interfaces that WERE acceptable were always proprietary Ziff Interchange makes waves, but it is a single service. Web/Mosaic provides the same function in a universal global network. I wonder how THAT will come out.

     TIME Magazine, The Library of Congress, The White House, The Louvre, they're already up and they already look great. TIME actually has message areas (kind of like bulletin boards) on theirs, back issues, graphics, and gateway services to other interesting Web sites. It's a superb effort out of the gate, and we have to believe they think they can improve it from there. Institutional America has already voted, and it's over. Get a web.

     Our initial reaction on looking this over this month was that we had missed the party. The web looked completely different than it did just six months ago. But in reality, this all happened in ONE MONTH October. It looked like someone had set off a web bomb. I would guess the number of web sites essentially doubled in the last 30 days.

     And it was enormously exciting in a number of different ways. An entire frontier of software development and "tool building" lies before us with this model. As we mentioned last month, the emergence of WINSOCK makes the development of software applications relatively trivial. But the juice is in perceptual changes caused by tiny "tricks" that can change the way we do things. The http link in newsgroup messages is just one example. It's not something you can explain precisely and it isn't even technologically difficult enough to be a "development." But you have to do the "click" part a few times to get it. It's all different and you can feel it become different in that moment enormous juice in that feeling. Perception thresholds crossed twice in an hour.

     That leaves access and bandwidth. That will continue to be the big problem for most potential Internauts for the immediate future. But longterm, I'm not even certain I'm still bandwidth worried. We may have some unexpected help on the horizon.

     I had the privilege to read a rather lengthy statement from the head of TCI, the nation's largest cable provider, listing the reasons Direct Broadcast Satellite was not a threat to existing cable companies. I was unaware they WERE a threat until I read this utterly ridiculous statement that was "whistling in the dark" so hard and fast it formed its own style of comedy. So I looked a little further into Direct Broadcast Satellite. A consortium of GM Hughes, RCA, and somebody else (who knows) has put up these higher powered digital satellites transmitting essentially everything that is on cable now. The dish is about the size of a large pizza, and right now costs $700 - $900. And there is no ghosting or the usual cable problems that no one talks about because they are like the weather and the cable company won't answer the telephone anyway. In any event, you pay a monthly fee, just like cable, but the picture and sound are much clearer (digital). There's some funny things that happen when it loses a little signal (the screen appears to disassemble and eat itself), but it works. I called around. It's already here. Everyone carries them already. But actually, you can't get one at any price. They're already sold out, and there is a waiting list everywhere. They just aren't available. Soundtrack has them right across the parking lot here. Or at least they have one you can look at and a waiting list you can get on. RCA claims they are making 100,000 units a month and can't catch up with demand.

     Understand how this works out. Anywhere in the country. Rural. Urban. Upstairs. Downstairs. On a time frame based on all these stores reordering and the manufacturers gearing up to meet the demand. Consumers are much smarter than most people give them credit for. Marketeers are all a few IQ points LESS gifted than most people give them credit for. DBS dish prices will fall. Digital pictures. Hmmm. DBS is how we will get broadcast TV folks. It's already over. We just weren't paying attention.

     So I get it. Cable is dead. And the TCI document was really an explanation as to why no respiration, heartbeat, or skin color actually didn't precisely mean dead conclusively. It just meant not feeling well. Feeling so unwell, in fact, that it looked dead.

     But there is a lot of RG cable in the ground. And the cable companies DO have precisely ONE card to lay in their hand. It is POSSIBLE (expensive, but possible) for them to put in the switching equipment to allow two-way communication over that cable at a pretty handsome data rate. Kind of like a T1 line to the home maybe better actually if anyone spent any time looking at it. DBS can't do that. And these multibillion dollar companies just generally don't early on accept the idea of closing the doors and sending everybody home. The office furniture auction alone would take months. All cable ventures into data delivery to date have been unabashed failures in all respects. But I still have hope.

     Performance Systems International is actually experimenting with cable delivery of IP. But they think this MAKES them into the phone company and aping the goofy they are pricing it at over $100 per month for the service. Good luck guys.

     So, we have telephone companies panting to deliver video to the home in an orgy of wishful thinking based on Blockbuster revenues they won't get and can't have even if they could deliver it. We have cable companies that do deliver it but screw everybody that comes within range to the floor. True, there is some market for on-demand movies as most of the broadcast channels are being taken over by an endless series of infomercials anyway. But it isn't enough for cables or telcos to live on, much less both.

     And suddenly, there are a couple of hundred channels of clean digital TV landing on your front yard, you need a dish the size of your cowboy hat to catch it, and it will ultimately cost about $300 for the dish and receiver. We seem to have a little bit of overcapacity headed our way.

     So sure, I'd like to pay $30 per month for a T1 to the net or its equivalent in bandwidth. The telcos can do it. The cable company can do it. Their future in video is a bit limited. It has to happen.

     The remaining thing that bears watching is equality of stance on this network. Ideally, everyone who us a consumer online should have the potential to also be a provider on the network. Anyone should be able to run a web site from their home or company. I'm pretty certain that's not going to be an issue. Someone will try to put in the fix. But they'll lose again.

     If so, this IS the BBS of the future. That may upset some, and it may gladden some. It does not augur particularly well for large services such as CompuServe and AOL unless they suddenly get in the business of providing SLIP accounts. And apparently they will. Delphi is already talking about doing it. CompuServe has announced they intend to provide IP connections to "businesses" initially. And those operating for-profit smaller bulletin board systems are already moving toward offering SLIP/PPP connections as a revenue producer. Kevin Behrens of Aquila BBS in Chicago (telnet or put in full Sprint T1 and started selling SLIP in the Chicago area this month. You might note likewise the and and addresses as well. It's happening. And the telcos have taken a sudden shine to actually deploying 64 kbps ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) with even US Worst announcing service. Between existing BBS services, commercial services, and ISDN, the access/bandwidth problem may get marginally better over the course of the next year. Long term, cable tv companies could provide the equivalent of fractional T1s to the home at very low rates.

     All of this will change the concept of what a BBS is in the hobby/commercial BBS community - though not as much as many of us will initially fear. But it will affect us all. We've been talking about making the Internet connection within the pages of Boardwatch for four years now. You have either heard or you have failed to hear. It's time. It's actually going to be a VERY good time in cyberville. Lock and load.

Jack Rickard
Editor, Boardwatch Magazine

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©Ken McCarthy, 2000